Dear Dirty America


Memorializing A Car Wreck

June 07
05:56 2012

Los Angeles


The tiny remnants of shattered plastic from my car’s headlights and smooth front bumper are probably still scattered at the Cesar Chavez and Broadway intersection. I’m embarrassed to say that bothers me. It’s the egomaniac, and insufferable pride in me that cares more about my favorite car in the world getting smashed, instead of the fact that if my car had been hit only six or seven inches closer to my driver’s side door, I would be severely injured, paralyzed, or dead.

I’ve never been in a car accident before. Since living in Los Angeles for the past couple of years, other cars have, on a few occasions, come within feet of sideswiping me, but always, always, a second or two prevailed to allow my quick maneuvering out of danger and roll ahead unscathed. But this time, I wasn’t so lucky.

Friday night. Beginning of Memorial Day weekend. I’d just dropped my Libra off at Union Station. We had dinner together first. Then I drove her to the station. Her train came at ten o’clock. I drove through the fateful intersection at 9.54.

My Libra is also featured in, Taking pictures with Batman is as great as America gets
An eighty-eight year old woman burned through a red light (is there any justice? One vigilante is taking action against red light runners) and I only had time to squeeze the brakes for a second before the startling crunch of plastic and metal became louder than the light sounds from the radio or my very peaceful thoughts only a moment prior.

My head banged against my driver’s side window. My shoulder jammed into the plastic. My car’s tires squealed. The other car’s nose drove straight into my driver’s side tire and front end, and when the steam and smoke cleared, I faced West instead of South.

I feel a little silly writing out this experience. I’m sure many people have had car accidents, and some far worse than this one. But this is what blogs are for, anyway. There is far worse slop writing on the Huffington Post.

As soon as I saw the lady’s car barreling in my direction, everything slowed down like people say it does right before an accident. It’s also how movie’s depict it. You’re driving, everything is good, and then BANG!, you’re not fine. You’ve been in your first serious accident.

My thoughts in that slow-motion second before being hit (and those thoughts were lightning fast, far faster than you can read them): I’m going to get hit. I’ve had close calls before, but always I’ve hit the brakes just in time. This is it. We’re going to crash.

Then the car hit mine, and somehow I remained incredibly calm throughout the screeching, crunching, and jerking around. A very satisfactory feeling of “acceptance” overtook my mind. I knew my head hurt, my shoulder lightly throbbed, but otherwise, I was OK.

Both of our cars linked for a few seconds before hers broke free and stopped a car-length ahead of mine, in the middle of the road, in the left turn lane. My car’s engine roared, and the tires tried to spin, but they were handicapped now. A broken axle, a busted car frame, I don’t know, I’m not an expert, but I knew I wouldn’t be driving that car home. And probably never driving it again. I love that car. An antique, and not produced any more. Worth far more than any auto appraisal book could understand.

I pressed the brake very hard to keep the car from lurching forward, despite the wheels’ struggles to roll. I put the car in Park, and the engine revved, like a last frightful roar from a mortally wounded lion. The needle in the RPM gauge tickled the red. I shut off the engine.

Again, I love that car. They don’t make them any more. An Oldsmobile Aurora. Sleek. Well-designed. Very expertly engineered. Destroyed. I’ve studied Buddhism, and I’ve read the teachings of Christ. Attachment and desire create all suffering. It’s true.

I opened my car door (which, as mentioned above, was narrowly missed, and unscathed, which is the true blessing in all of this, because I would either be in the hospital with a shattered pelvis and back, or deceased and being thought of in terms of funeral plans and burial plots.) I didn’t know who the other person was. I hadn’t got a glimpse. The only image in my mind was that grey front end and bright headlights on their collision course with my orbit.

The driver was a tiny, old lady with thinning white hair. I said, Are you OK? I was so calm. My head felt fine, suddenly. The woman said she didn’t know. She had blood on her pointer finger. Her airbag had gone off. From her nose a line of red liquid dripped.

You’re bleeding, I said, out of your nose. I don’t see any cuts. I think you just bonked it on the airbag. I was trying to be comforting. She seemed relieved to know that’s where the blood came from, and not a gash in her forehead.

“What happened?” she asked me. I was taken aback by that one. I held no malice toward her, even though she’d nearly killed me, and at best she’d severely corrupted the remaining hours of my evening. Hours I’d planned to be at home, doing a little writing, and then preparing for bed.

You ran the red light, I said, because my light was green when I was going through the intersection. I’d had a second to check, just on instinct, as I saw her car enter the intersection. Am I going through a red light? was my first split second question, and I glanced up to see that no, I wasn’t. Green, baby, means go go go.

I realized I didn’t have my cell phone in my pocket. Then I remembered I’d set it on the center console when I pulled out of Union Station. That’s ironic in my case, because I always imagined that if I’d gotten into an accident, and my phone wasn’t in a secure place, like my pocket, it would be thrown around the car. I’m not sure why I’d always thought of that. Perhaps I knew, deep in my DNA, that night was coming, but I suspect it’s because I’m so goddamned careful all the time.

As I searched my car for my phone, I panicked. How was I going to call my Libra, who was on the train for San Diego? How could I call the cops, or a tow truck? Dear Jesus, I was stranded downtown, late in the evening, and a cool wind was getting unpleasantly chilly.

I dug beneath the driver’s seat. No phone. Beneath the passenger seat, nothing. There wasn’t enough light, but how many possible places could a cell phone be flung inside a car? I checked the back seats and floorboards. Not there. Back to the driver’s side, and I found it. My heart was beating, and the relief of finding that lifeline was like no other. My black phone, nestled beside the seat and the door.

When I looked up, I saw a taxi driver had stopped to help. Another bystander stood beside the woman’s car, asking her questions. “You doing all right, ma? Ambulance is on its way, ma.” He asked me what happened. I told him. “That’s fine, that’s OK,” he said to me. “All right. All right,” he kept saying.

He instructed me to stand by my car, as if he were an emergency official. I did as he told me, but I wanted to say, Stop playacting importance over me, pal. But he was good enough to take time and help us. I respected that.

As soon as the paramedics arrived, the bystander realized the taxi driver was parked there. “I need a taxi,” he said. And they left together. Two younger men hopped out of their red box of an emergency vehicle. The driver cut the siren, but left the lights flashing. Cars drove by us, staring at the wreckage. Every time I caught a driver surveying the scene, he or she instantly looked away. There’s such shame in a car wreck. For the people involved, and the sympathetic pity of everybody driving by. Nobody has time to help, and what can they do, anyway?

The cars that were close by when the accident happened scooted along. Nobody wants to stick around for police questioning, even though a witness would have been ideal. There’s just no time for that.

The paramedics asked me if I was injured. No, I said, I’m fine, but she might not be. I ignored the pain in my head and shoulder. They helped the old woman out of her car, and she shakily walked to the back of the ambulance with the men at her sides. All the while, the cars kept driving on either side of us. I kept thinking, Sooner or later, this kind of thing happens to all of us. How foolish to think I could drive in a city this packed and constipated with cars and their vast array of drivers and not eventually get hit.

Finally, the police arrived. A tall, muscled officer asked me what happened. I told him. He nodded. He asked where the woman was. I pointed to the ambulance. The junior officer asked if I could drive my car home. Hell no, I said, it’s junk now.

After an hour of the little old lady sitting in the police cruiser with the two policemen (giving her statement, I suppose), they informed me that they’d called me a taxi. “But we aren’t going to stand by,” the muscular California cop told me. The wrecked cars had been cleared by tow trucks. The paramedics had left. The tow truck operator asked if I’d already gotten over the shakes. I guess I seemed relaxed. What can I do? I said, and pointed to my vehicle loaded on the back of his rumbling diesel engine truck. It happened too fast.

“Hopefully you have a better weekend,” he said. He winced, and I think he really meant it. “If I ever get that old,” he said, pointing to the police cruiser with the old lady in it, “I hope my kids pull my keys from me.” I nodded. I agreed. Then everybody left.

Traffic continued peacefully, except for the crunch and crackle of tires rolling over the pieces of plastic left over from our cars as they slowed down at the stop lights. The wind was awfully chilly then. I’d never imagined I’d be standing all alone downtown at that hour, without a vehicle, with an aching head, and waiting for a taxi the police supposedly called.

The taxi never came. I waited for thirty minutes or more. I walked back to Union Station, dazed and tired as the homeless people sharing the sidewalks with me, and took the train home. From there I walked thirteen blocks to my apartment. But I couldn’t sleep until much later.

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